All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


21 August 2011

Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions

Everyone says that they want "accountability" in education: teachers must be "accountable", administrators must be "accountable", even parents must be "accountable". This sort of talk often leaves me feeling... unsatisfied. Let me explain why.

Now, one of my favorite fallacies is the fallacy of the missing preposition. It something that I came up with one day when I was watching Babylon 5. There's a great scene with Lyta Alexander and the Vorlon Ambassador. He pretty much dismisses her, and then we get the following:

Lyta: Damn it, I have earned some respect!
Ulkesh: Respect? (pause) From whom?

It's the missing preposition fallacy: Lyta thought she deserved respect in the abstract, but forgot that respect is a two-place predicate, and that some particular entity has to go into the second place which may or may not make the statement false. People make mistakes like this all the time.

When was the last time someone said to you, "It'll be great!" and you thought to yourself, "Great for whom?" Or "This is really important!" and you thought, "Not to me." These are all examples of the MPF. This fallacy, which is, basically, taking a statement like "I love Betty" and universalizing one of the objects so that it comes out as "Everyone loves Betty" or, more conversationally, "Betty is loveable" (yeah... to you), might have a real name somewhere -- but I call it the Missing Preposition Fallacy.

Anyway, I see the workings of the MPF in almost every discussion of "accountability" in our schools. Accountability is a three-place predicate (at least). X is accountable to Y, for Z. And X gets held accountable to Y, for Z.

So if teachers are "accountable" for dismal student learning outcomes, then they must be accountable to someone in particular. Who is that? The school? The state? The parents? The student? To whom exactly are teachers supposed to be accountable?

One way to answer this question is to ask ourselves what it means to be "accountable" for something, and further, if it is any different from being "held accountable". Here's what dictionaries say, though I warn my readers that dictionaries are guidelines to words' intended meanings, not authorities.

Accountable: 1. subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.; 2.capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.

We can dispense with the second definition. The first definition is pretty much what you'd expect from looking at the word: a person is "accountable" if their actions can, at least metaphorically, be charged to their karmic "account", that is, if they have some sort of duty to someone else. That duty, that obligation, is really the foundation of what it means to be accountable. In the absence of a duty, there can be no accountability.

To be "held accountable", then, is just to be recognized by the person towards whom one has some duty or obligation as being responsible for that duty or obligation.

Being held accountable, by itself, tells us nothing about punishment or enforcement mechanisms. Punishment/enforcement comes into play because (and only if) the person to whom the duty is owed has legitimate authority to enforce the duty.

If you promise to bring me a cup of sugar tomorrow, I can "hold you accountable" for your promise. Your promise created an obligation. That doesn't mean I have the authority to burn down your house and kill your pets if you forget to drop it off. The obligation carries with it, in the context of our interactions, its own enforcement mechanisms. I get to express a certain amount of disapproval, perhaps. Maybe I can call you up and legitimately guilt you into bringing it over RIGHT NOW -- if the situation calls for it. Maybe I just get to tease you about it once or twice.

The point is that it is the duty or obligation, taken in its context, that defines the right to punishment or enforcement. There need not be any enforcement mechanisms whatsoever. I can rightfully hold someone accountable, but be absolutely powerless to do anything about it without committing a moral wrong. We might imagine that politicians who do things in bad faith are an example of this: the corrupt politician is accountable for his actions, but those to whom he is accountable are powerless to act.

Some people would say that this means that he's not accountable at all, though. Some people think that "to be held accountable" means, roughly, "to face enforcement measures for your obligation." That's simply not true, as I've just discussed. But let's say we grant this.

If teachers are to be "held accountable", that means that there is going to have to be some sort of enforcement mechanism to enforce their obligation. That means it's even more important than ever to identify the person to whom they have this obligation.

Let us assume that the obligation is to raise student academic achievement. (Let us also put aside the notion that any teacher who undertakes an obligation to bring about a result that is not within his or her power is a moron. I will talk about that in another post.) To whom is this duty owed?

From a purely legal standpoint -- and it is the law with which we must be concerned first and foremost because much of the enforcement that people wish is the sort of enforcement that requires the law's blessing -- the teachers only owe their duty to their employers. A parent or student cannot sue a teacher (currently) for failing to generate that particular student's academic success. (The relation there would be 1-1; obviously, a teacher would not owe Student A a duty of any kind for Student B's success absent some extremely special circumstances.) But employees have a duty to their employers to do their jobs.

Teachers surely have a moral duty to parents and students, and that moral duty carries with it its own enforcement mechanisms: the parents and students can rightfully say bad things and think ill thoughts about a teacher who breaks the obligations. But that's not what people want. They want penalties with "teeth" -- financial penalties like reduced salaries and unemployment.

So the legal enforcement will have to come from the school. The teachers must be accountable, then, to their schools. (Though there can obviously be all sorts of non-legal enforcement of various moral obligations.)

The picture, then, is something like this: The teacher has an obligation to the school to produce student achievement. The school can hold the teacher accountable for this obligation, and can enact enforcement measures if it is not met.

My point, really, is just to point out that vague talk of "accountability" is non-productive. When one speaks of accountability, one needs necessarily speak of specific obligations owed to specific entities. One needs to ask if the obligations that are being described are real, and if real, if they are reasonable. One needs to consider what sorts of enforcement mechanisms, if any, are or should be available to meet the specific obligations that are owed to the specific entities.

No one just "gets held accountable" -- they are always held accountable to someone, for something. That's just how the word, how the concept, works. Ignore it at your peril.

In my next post, I will look more closely at the obligation that teachers supposedly owe.

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